Most researchers know about buccal cells – the easily sloughed-off cells from the inside of the cheek. The collection of these cells is relatively non-invasive, which gives it many of the same advantages as spit and mucus that we’ve already discussed. Because of this, many studies, including some in social science, utilize buccal swabs to increase the amount of data they’re collecting.
However, even if it’s popular, don’t let that diminish its value. From biomarker studies to stem cell research, buccal cells have proven time and time again to be a hugely useful source of biological data. Last time in our Amazing Samples blog series, we scratched the surface of research with skin cells. This time, buccal up and get ready for a cheekier kind of Amazing Sample!
Expanding our Understanding of Cell Biology Dynamics
The value of cell transformation is expanding before our eyes and is the crux of many regenerative therapies that use stem cells. So it shouldn’t be too much a surprise that a group of researchers chose buccal cells for a stem cell therapy. Specifically, they are developing techniques to use buccal cells – readily available and painlessly collected – to treat ocular damage, especially as we’ve already discussed how difficult it is to find donors for ocular tissue. They had tested several other stem cell types, and decided buccal cells had the highest success of all relevant non-ocular cell types. Should techniques like this be refined, it would greatly broaden the reach of regenerative medicine.
But transformation isn’t where the buc(cal) stops for cell biology research around these cells. Just as we’d discussed how bone marrow-derived (BMD) stem cells apparently play a large role in adipocyte formation, they also have been shown to have a similar function regarding buccal cells. In this specific study, the researchers analyzed the buccal epithelial cells of women who, 4-6 years prior, had received male BMD cells. The researchers found that all of the women had Y-chromosome-positive cells among their buccal cells, yet without any sign of oral graft-versus-host disease, which speaks to the high plasticity of BMD cells as a channel for regenerative medicine.
Screening for Cancer
For any given sample type, there's substantial research on which biomarkers can predict the development of cancer for that sample type's region. However, the use of buccal cells reaches well past oral cancer when discussing the effects of certain hobbies – in the case of smokers, the state of cells in a cheek swab are a good analog for lung cells’ health, as well (and again, far less invasive). Both regions would be exposed to the carcinogenic smoke to similar enough extents that the epigenetic damage and DNA methylation in buccal cells has been a good indicator of cancer risk resulting from smoking. For anyone who finds this risk to be scary enough to kick the habit, at least this study reports that smoking-related DNA damage can be reversed… it just takes a decade.
But even past smoking-derived cancer, buccal cells are being analyzed for biomarkers that might indicate other various types of exposure that increase risk. For example, researchers out of the Medical University of South Carolina have identified the damage buccal proteins express after being exposed to reactive oxygen species (ROS), specifically using hydrogen peroxide. Considering both that certain commercial mouthwashes contain ROS and have been linked to increasing oral cancer risk, as well as that the body loves producing its own ROS like hydrogen peroxide for various signaling and defensive purposes, identifying the biomarkers linked to exposure will further enable not only early screening and detection of cancer, but potentially have further applications in immunological studies in general.
With as much research as there is about this sample type, the hardest part of highlighting buccal cells as an Amazing Sample is choosing which topics to discuss! If you’re collecting and analyzing buccal cells for your own research, please share in the comments below! Also, we recently published our latest edition of InsideAccess which focuses on the challenges involved in maintaining inventory accuracy. Download your free copy to learn some of the tools we use in working toward our goal of absolute, 100%, accuracy in our operations!